Ukrainians caught in geopolitical race for covid vaccines

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Kiev (AFP)

Vitaly Sokolov, a doctor who has been treating critical coronavirus patients in Ukraine since the start of the pandemic, is anxiously waiting to be vaccinated.

But his ex-Soviet republic is caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war that is delaying a national vaccine rollout in one of Europe's poorest countries.

"We live in constant stress," the surgeon told AFP at the Kiev hospital where he works.

"It's insulting that colleagues in countries that produce vaccines -- and even colleagues in countries where they aren't produced -- have already been vaccinated," he said, clad in protective gear before entering a virus ward.

The stakes are high for Ukraine, where a population of some 40 million rely on a ageing and understaffed public health care system that is buckling under a caseload of 1.2 million infections and 21,000 deaths.

The government has said that the vaccine drive could start mid-February but medical staff are sceptical since no official date for a first delivery has been finalised.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has blamed the delay on richer Western countries that reserved the Pfizer and Moderna jabs in bulk.

"The richest found themselves first in the global vaccine queue," he said in December.

He has urged the EU to help eastern European countries source vaccines, following on from a similar appeal to Brussels by some of the bloc's members to "go beyond the current initiatives".

- Catastrophic moral failure' -

Ukraine however is not alone in its fight for the vaccine.

The head of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that the world faced a "catastrophic moral failure" over the distribution of jabs to poor countries.

Ukraine so far secured 8 million doses through the UN Covax mechanism helping poorer nations with distribution, and Kiev expects to obtain up to 5 million doses of the Chinese vaccine CoronaVac once it is registered.

But those numbers combined fall far short in a country of more than 40 million.

Neighbouring EU member Poland by comparison has secured over 60 million doses for its 38 million inhabitants.

"It's not a question of Ukraine's competence, but of access," Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna told AFP.

She reiterated the president's appeal to Brussels and said the bloc should do more to help the ex-Soviet country which relies heavily on European backing.

Kiev is deeply reluctant to turn to Russia, whose Sputnik V vaccine has been distributed to several Moscow-friendly countries and was recently approved for use in EU member Hungary.

Moscow backs separatist fighters in east of Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 after a pro-democracy uprising ousted Kiev's Kremlin-friendly president.

"We are not going to buy the Russian vaccine," Stefanishyna said, accusing Moscow of using offers of supply as a way to "influence" and "destabilise" Ukraine.

- Russia 'extending its geopolitical clout' -

Some pro-Russian politicians are lobbying for Sputnik to be introduced in Ukraine as Kremlin critics accuse Moscow of using the vaccine as means of extending its geopolitical clout.

Ukrainian lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk said in a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in October that he had "personally tested" Sputnik V and that his wife and son had also got the Russian jab.

President Zelensky has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic and some critics have said systemic corruption was behind a poor government response.

Pro-Western opposition MP Oleksandra Ustinova accused health minister Maksym Stepanov this month of blocking purchases of Indian vaccines for $3 per dose compared to nearly $18 for CoronaVac.

"Ukraine should have fought for direct contracts" with Western vaccine producers, Pavlo Kovtonyuk at the Kyiv School of Economics told AFP.

"Other poor countries have between five and six vaccines in their wallet, and we only have a tiny contract" with the Chinese, he said.